He is the champion. After 13 years of coming close to winning it all, Kevin Harvick captured the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fashion by making good use of his nickname: The Closer.
However, for Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick, 2014 was a step in the right direction. One of the most popular drivers in the sport, she was expected to steadily improve this year, but didn’t make the leap that was expected of her.
But for Harvick, 2014 was a dream come true for a Bakersfield, California kid that nearly became an architect.
After making the swap from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick had plenty of support from multiple sponsors, including Budweiser, Jimmy Johns and Outback Steakhouse. Moreover, the No. 4 team was starting from scratch. Led by crew chief Rodney Childers, the magic rapidly increased in the organization, and Harvick was on the fast road to success.
Right off of the bat, Harvick showed he was going to be the car to beat – posting top speeds consistently during the first test prior to the 2014 season at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dominating at Phoenix, he scored SHR’s first of six victories on the year. Although he continued to be one of the quickest cars week-in and week-out, Harvick’s team struggled with luck.
Mechanical issues and faulty pit stops took away multiple wins for the No. 4 team. During the first 10 races of the 2014 season, he finished 36th or worse four times, and was barely sitting inside of the top-20 in points. However, Harvick persevered and won five races on the year. Having led an astonishing 2,137 laps, he led the Sprint Cup Series in that category by over 500 laps ahead of Brad Keselowski.
But with all of the laps led, Harvick’s success truly came late in events. Even when he might not have had the strongest car, he made bold moves that put him in position to not only finish inside of the top five, but to earn the win. And that’s just what he did.
With struggles occurring throughout SHR over the course of the season, Harvick became the team leader that they were looking for. He was a mentor to Patrick, and helped out Kurt Busch and team co-owner Tony Stewart when they were struggling on and off of the track.
As for Patrick, she finished 28th in points, which is one position down from her rookie season. She made steady gains throughout the year, but unfortunately for the No. 10 team, so did the rest of the middle part of the field.
Earning a top-10 finish at Kansas in May, Patrick began to raise eyebrows. After running inside of the top five for a substantial portion of the race, it looked like she would continue that pace for the rest of the year. But things at SHR started to shake up, and as she was gaining momentum with crew chief Tony Gibson, he was assigned to work with Kurt Busch. She was paired with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost, who notably struggled with Busch for the majority of the year.
Patrick ended the year with three top-10s, which isn’t too good compared to her teammates. But she has a sponsor that is backing her with plenty of funding to continue at SHR in 2015.
Harvick is expected to pick up from where he left off. The reigning champion usually does extremely well or . . . not so much. Childers and he have a rare chemistry that is seldom seen in NASCAR.
But now that the team likely won’t be dealing with mechanical issues, Childers should lead Harvick to even more success in 2015. With eight poles in 2014, Harvick became a great qualifier. Although that might not remain next year, he will certainly be a consistent factor during race day.
If there is any room for improvement in this team, it will have to be the pit crew. Late in the year, SHR swapped the No. 14 and No. 4 pit crews in order to give Harvick as much of an advantage as he can have. It paid off in the short-term, but he’s going to have his original crew back in 2015. Practice makes perfect, and if they can make fewer mistakes in 2015, expect Harvick to win at least three-five races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cut-off.
2015 will be an important year for Patrick. She needs to finish inside of the top five at least once at a non-restrictor plate track in order to prove that she belongs in the Cup Series. She improved in each category in 2014, but that wasn’t enough to make up for some of her horrific races, such as Texas late in the year.
Patrick’s struggles are known throughout the sport due to being rushed up to the top-tier division following limited success in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports. However, she has potential to finish inside of the top-20 in points if she and Knost find chemistry right off of the bat. She will be strong at the plate tracks, but where she can truly excel is the intermediate tracks, which she showed strengths at.